Chamber Music For Middle School Students

Back in college I took a course titled Secondary Instrumental Methods. One of the projects for the course involved arranging Amazing Grace for a small chamber ensemble. I credit this class, and that project in particular, with getting me to start thinking beyond the traditional school large ensemble structure. Activities like composition, orchestration, and chamber music now seemed like realistic possibilities for my own band classes as a teacher.

Fast forward to three years ago. It was my fourth year at my current job, and I felt comfortable enough to start taking some musical risks. When scheduling the concerts for that year, I decided to take the plunge and set up two chamber music nights in March instead of our traditional spring band concert. Each grade would have its own chamber music recital in a more intimate performance venue.

The first year was a lot of trial and error, and here in year three of the annual chamber concerts, I’m still tweaking a few things. I’ve also learned quite a bit during these three years, and I encourage any teacher considering doing something like this to just go ahead and take the plunge.

Why chamber music? It’s simple. My basic goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the skills and thought processes necessary for them to function without me. Rather than me dictating things from the podium, I want them making their own decisions about dynamics, phrasing, tempo, balance, and blend. I want them to have total ownership over the final musical product. Chamber music does all of these things.

Dip your toes in the water. Several months before our first chamber night, I wanted to make sure my students would have just a taste of what they were in for. There’s safety in numbers, and to be successful, they needed to be comfortable playing in an environment where they would be more exposed. The week before Christmas break, they divided themselves into groups of 4-8 students, and we got to work learning some selections from Quick And Easy Carols, by Scott Watson. Each group then went around the school right before break and caroled to several classrooms. They gained performing experience without the pressure that comes with a formal performance.

Flex arrangements are your friend. I let my students choose their own chamber ensembles, because they know who they work well with. This results in some strange instrumentation, which is fine. There are several books out there that will work with any combination of instruments, most notable the Duets/Trios/Quartets For All.

Find a rehearsal schedule that works. I eventually settled on spending 1-2 days per week focusing on just chamber music. On those days, each group goes into a different practice room or spreads out around the band room. I spend 5-10 minutes working with each group on those days. For the other 3-4 days per week, we work on some full ensemble music, and I have the flexibility to send groups that might need some extra practice out to work. It seems to be a good balance for us, and I’ve noticed increased engagement among my students during this concert cycle each year.

Take time to teach decision-making skills. With younger students especially, they might not have much experience reaching a consensus democratically. A strong personality can threaten to take over the whole chamber group. I stress that each individual in the ensemble has a valuable contribution to make, and no decision should be reached until all members have a chance to give their input. We do a few exercises with our warmup chorales as a full ensemble to give students a peek into this process. We’ll play through a chorale, and then I ask for student input on things like dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. If we get three different suggestions for dynamics, we perform the chorale three different ways, and then as a group choose the one that we feel makes the most musical sense.

Find a way to hold students accountable. Since you are not with every chamber group all the time while they are rehearsing, you might need a way to keep them on track. I created a simple rubric, and ask groups to rate themselves in categories like teamwork, preparedness, use of time, rhythm accuracy, pitch accuracy, etc.

Show them how the process works. I’ve got a basic map for the students to guide them through learning a piece. The first step is learning your own individual part, just notes and rhythms. From there, we move to learning how the parts fit together, to making decisions about dynamics and phrasing, to polishing things like blend and balance for the final performance. This gives the students a more tangible goal for each step in the process.

Be encouraging! For many students, this might be their first time in a “1-2 players on a part” situation. There will be some growing pains, so make sure you celebrate the successes. This will keep your students motivated to continue with more chamber music in the future, and they will keep developing these valuable musical skills.

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Middle School Chamber Music: Student Feedback

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on middle school chamber music recitals, I’d like to share some of the feedback that I’ve received from students during the past week. This is actual feedback from real students.

  • “I did not have a least favorite part! I loved chamber music!”
  • “My favorite part was playing with my friends because we got to help other improve and got to learn more about them as musicians.”
  • When asked about their favorite part: “Learning how to work individually, and problem solving without help from Mr. Guarr.”
  • “…taking the responsibility for us to make the piece sound good.”
  • “Co-leading a ‘band’ gave us more confidence.”
  • “I like that we were on our own to work out our bumpy roads in music.”
  • “I loved it! Can we do it every concert?”
  • “My favorite part is that it was peer-led and we all had a say in how things worked.”
  • “[My favorite part was] bonding with my group because I was a new student when this started.”
  • “Independently having the ability to add/change dynamics.”
  • “At some points we would disagree with some parts and we would have to fix them by coming to a compromise.”
  • “My favorite part was being able to pick groups and pieces of music, because we got some independence.”

Some common themes emerged during the post-concert reflections we did as a class. Students were excited to step outside of the normal “band concert” box and do something new. They loved the independence offered by chamber music (though at times it was a double-edged sword). And perhaps most gratifying of all, with the exception of a few students, everybody said that they’d like to do this again.

It was definitely a strange feeling to give up so much control for a concert, but seeing the end result has been incredible. This kind of student growth and engagement is going to be a big positive for our music program; I’d encourage others to consider making chamber music an option for their students as well.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Middle School Chamber Music: An Experiment

Each year, during the long stretch between Christmas and spring break, students everywhere seem to hit the doldrums. Motivation drops, engagement suffers, and rehearsals can lose their enjoyment for both students and teacher. I wanted to avoid the February/March lull with my students this year, so I decided to change things up a bit. Rather than schedule our traditional spring combined 7th/8th grade large ensemble concert, each grade level would have their own chamber music recital.

There were several reasons behind this. Chamber music experiences have always been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my own musical career, I wanted to give my students a chance to experience real musical independence and autonomy, and I wanted chamber rehearsals to break up the monotony of the large ensemble routine.

The foundation for this project began during the week before Christmas break. I told students what the March concerts would look like, and they were understandably skeptical. So they broke up into small groups of their choosing (4-8 musicians), and prepared some simple carols to perform around school. Unfortunately, we had a snow day on the scheduled carolling date, but the seed had been planted.

Once the students came back from their Christmas break, I had them pick out new groups, anything from a duet to a sextet. From there, they chose music from our library, and we got to work. Before I set the groups loose on their own, each class observed a typical chamber music rehearsal and took some notes on what was happening. We discussed everything from how to start learning the piece, to how to solve disagreements within the group. I wanted the students well-equipped for the times when I would be away from them coaching other groups.

Rehearsals began in earnest in mid-January. Our typical week would be 2-3 days of full ensemble work, 2-3 days in chamber groups. During those chamber days, I’d spend 10-15 minutes (out of a 55-minute class) with a group, and then move on to another one. I offered feedback on things like dynamics, phrasing and tempo, but the final decision on such things was left up to the group.Long story short, the recital nights were (mostly) a raging success. Despite some dress rehearsal nerves, the students performed quite well on concert night. When we reflected on the performances as a class the following day, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the independence, they loved working with their friends, they loved the challenge. I’ve never seen my students more engaged during a concert cycle. Plans are already being made for a repeat of this experience during the next school year, with a few tweaks.If you’ve ever been interested in putting together a chamber music experience for your own students, here are some of my observations that you might find useful.

  • Not all groups will display the same work ethic. To keep groups on-task while you are working with another group, consider having them fill out a goal sheet or rehearsal reflection at the end of each day to keep them accountable.
  • Don’t let yourself be bound by traditional instrumentation. Yes, brass quintets are cool. But if you’ve got two saxophonists, an oboist, a clarinetist and a percussionist who would like to work together, let them! There’s plenty of flexible music out there (Duets/Trios/Quartets For All) that allow for strange instrumentation.
  • Speaking of percussionists…no percussion parts? No problem. If a group wants to use a snare drum on a piece with no snare part, it’s a great opportunity for the students to experience composition. Noteflight is free, and easy enough for even young students to use.
  • If you’ve got the resources, bring in clinicians. College students, older high school students, retired band directors, whatever. The kids really value that focused feedback, and bringing in clinicians will allow each group to experience more of it.
  • Avoid the urge to be overprotective. Yes, it can be nerve-wracking to see your students on their own for the first time, but their experience will be more rewarding if they learn to sink or swim on their own. They’ll make plenty of mistakes during the process, but if you step back and let them figure out how to fix the mistakes, the students will have total ownership of the musical product. Cut the cord!

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Changing It Up: Embracing Chamber Music

Traditionally, the band program at my school does four band concerts per year, and participates in two parades. This works out to roughly one big performing commitment every month and a half, which is a lot to ask of middle school students. We also used to participate in solo and ensemble festivals, but no longer due that because participation requires a membership in our state band and orchestra organization, which would take roughly half my budget alone (but that’s a post for another time…)

This year, I decided to switch things up for our March concert. This is usually the concert with the longest period of preparation (well over two months!), so we’ve got the luxury of doing a few different things in the time leading up to concert day. Since we’re no longer a member of our state’s band and orchestra organization, I thought how can I give my students the valuable solo and ensemble experience, minus the pressure and bull**** bureaucratic rules?

The answer, at least for this school year, was to turn our March concert into a chamber music recital, with each grade level getting their own night. Before we left school for Christmas break, the students formed their own chamber groups and prepared a few simple holiday carols to perform around school. That performance was unfortunately snowed up, but things were already in motion. After we returned from the break, the groups spent a day looking through our music library to choose pieces (Duets/Trios/Quartets for All were perfect for this) and then they got to work rehearsing during class a couple of days per week.

The actual recital is still a month away, but so far the early returns have been incredible. My students come to class each day excited to work with their chamber groups. They’ve been focused, and are starting to pay close attention to musical details like dynamics and phrasing without me asking them to do so! I spend 5-10 minutes with each group during class, coaching and offering feedback. We took a day at the beginning of the chamber music experience to watch some performances on YouTube and discuss good rehearsal techniques, and I continue to reinforce those techniques during our coaching sessions.

I’ve never seen a group of students more excited about a concert cycle. They’ve taken complete ownership of the rehearsals and repertoire choices. It’s been a successful first-year experiment so far. In the future to make it even better, I’ll likely try to set up coachings and performance demos via Skype with some college music majors.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

A new school year is almost upon us

Band Camp 2013 starts in just six short days. Six days of rest and relaxation (and finishing up a grad school paper!) before the circus that is band camp begins. And for me, band camp is the Calvin & Hobbes autumn Sunday of the summer (just click the link, that analogy totally works). So with the end of summer imminent, it only makes sense to reflect on some goals that I’ve set for the upcoming school year.

  • Improve communication. This has been a yearly thing for me. I always want to get better at reaching out to students, parents and colleagues. Last year, I made an effort to keep an updated website. This year, I’m going to add Remind101 into the mix. I’ve been in the habit of sending home paper notes to remind students and parents about concerts, but I know roughly 90% of those never make it home. This is a quick and easy way to improve that communication hiccup.
  • Chamber music. Traditionally, my building has done four band concerts per year. That’s fine with me, but it doesn’t really leave a lot of time for students to explore one of the most enjoyable things in music: chamber music. This year, instead of our usual March large ensemble concert, I’ve scheduled two nights in a small auditorium for chamber music concerts. To prep for the concert in class, we’re going to have clinics, chamber music rehearsal time, and hopefully a couple of guest artists. Hopefully this will provide an injection of enthusiasm at a spot in the calendar when we most need it.
  • Avoid burnout. Last year was rough, especially the final few months. Several factors combined to make for a very stressful school year. This year, I hope to deal with those issues a little more effectively this time around.
  • Collaborate. During my Master’s coursework this summer, a few of us came up with some ideas to collaborate during the school year. Skype rehearsals, composition projects between schools, things of that nature. The goal here is to not be so overwhelmed by the school year that I’m actually able to follow through on these things.